I have had a typical 37-year engineering career that I have thoroughly enjoyed, split between project engineering, production, production management, and consulting. I was recently asked for some general advice, from a nephew beginning an engineering education. Here is my reply:
Engineering is a wonderful career if you have a technical mindset. Consider your engineering degree as a “hunting license.” Much of your college coursework will not be relevant to the actual work you will do. For example, since 1975, I have used calculus one time! Unless you go into an area such as process design, your career will rely much more on problem-solving techniques than on complex and obscure calculation and analytical methodologies. Those knowledge areas have already become inexpensive programs that can be purchased.
But you should become very, very good with computers. Consider computer science as a minor or take electives in it. When I graduated, there was no such thing as a personal computer. I learned everything about them on my own and helped introduce them as useful tools into my company’s engineering department. It sounds silly now, but at the time, there was considerable resistance by the “elderly managers.” Everything you do will be computer-related. Take some programming courses in widely-used, useful computer languages. But do not go too far; the country is full of laid-off I.T. professionals that cannot find work. Computers should be something you know a lot about and use expertly, but not the focus of your career.
The technical knowledge that is the focus of your education is all well and good. But once you get the degree, your career success will not primarily be based on your technical expertise. It will be mainly based on your ability to work with others. For most engineers, that is not a very strong suit. (Ask me how I know!) You can be the finest technical expert there is, but if people do not want to work with you, you will go nowhere. Be the person of whom people say, “I want him on the new project team.”
It is very important to your career for you to be able to communicate – particularly to be able to talk to a group, to be relaxed, to be authoritative, and to be engaging. That is probably more important to your career than your technical knowledge.
Bill R. Hollifield, PAS principal alarm management and HMI consultant, is an industry veteran, ISA committee member and author of books on alarm management and HMI.
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